In this guide, we will discuss what estrogen is, its role in the endocrine system, and why it is beneficial to attempt to lower your estrogen levels.
Table of Contents:
- What Is Estrogen
- Progesterone The Unsung Hero
- The Endocrine System
- How To Lower Your Estrogen Levels
What Is Estrogen?:
Estrogen is a type of steroid hormone produced in the body and is typically considered to be the principal female sex hormone, the female counterpart to testosterone. While estrogen is a vital hormone produced by both men and women, comparing estrogen and testosterone is a misnomer, to say the least.
Estrogen is a Stress Hormone
There are four primary stress hormones produced by the body:
- Epinephrine/norepinephrine (or Adrenaline/noradrenaline)
Now, it is absolutely pivotal to understand that stress and stress hormones are not “bad for you” and in fact, they are designed to allow us to handle “acute” responses to a stimulus. If it wasn’t for these stress hormones we wouldn’t be able to wake up in the morning, seal open wounds, fight infections, lose body fat, and the list goes on.
I mean honestly if it wasn’t for these stress hormones we probably would not have survived thus far as a species in the first place. The key to stress hormones, like everything else in life is.... (drum roll please) balance. When these stress hormones are chronically in excess they change our body’s priority from a growth and repair mode to a “survival state”.
This survival state is dictated primarily by a change in our cell’s “fuel source” from glucose metabolism to fatty acid metabolism (metabolism in this context meaning to break down to use as fuel). Again, we should note that fatty acid metabolism isn’t “bad”, it’s just not optimal, it’s our body’s built-in back-up system. Fatty acid metabolism results in the accumulation of (metabolic) byproducts that continue to up regulate stress production in our body, leading to an endless feedback loop of more stress.
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Progesterone: The Unsung Hero
Remember when I said comparing testosterone and estrogen was a misnomer? Well, here’s the reason. Progesterone, like testosterone and estrogen, is also a steroid hormone produced in the body, but unlike estrogen, it is not a stress hormone. Progesterone acts as a protective hormone in the body, similar to testosterone, encouraging the body to exist in its “growth and repair” state instead of the “survival state”. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that progesterone is attributed to be the cause of women’s glowing skin during pregnancy due to high levels of progesterone. Excess estrogen on the other hand has been associated with:
- Decreased blood flow & nutrient delivery
- Mood swings
- Gynecomastia (man-boobs)
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Oxidative stress (often leading to genetic mutations)
I would also like to mention that high levels of estrogen are very often found on the outside of cancerous tumors, creating an almost “protective layer” surrounding the tumor.
A Number’s Game: Estrogen vs Progesterone
The normal range for estrogen levels in women is considered to be between 15-350 picograms per milliliter(pg/mL), while normal progesterone levels range from 1.8-20 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL). If you aren’t familiar with the metric system, 1 nanogram is equal to 1,000 picograms.
Meaning that if you are on the low-end range of normal progesterone levels and high-end range of estrogen, let’s say 1.8 ng/mL of progesterone and 350 pg/mL of estrogen, then your body will still have 5X the amount of progesterone than estrogen. Consider that the normal range for free (usable) testosterone in men also happens to be almost perfectly aligned with the normal range of progesterone in women. Both of which are found in about 10X the quantity of estrogen in the body.
The Endocrine System:
In order to fully understand estrogen’s role in the body, we must have some level of understanding of the endocrine system. The endocrine system is the body's internal method of communication. There are a number of glands/organs in the body that release chemical signals (aka hormones) into the bloodstream, which are distributed throughout the body and absorbed by our cells.
Analogy Time - The endocrine system is kind of like sending out party invitations. Your body chooses how much of the hormone to produce (invites to send out), and once they reach your cells (party guests), your cells have the ability to respond to the hormones. Sometimes your cells don’t have a choice and the hormones will automatically enter the cell (the in-laws), while in other cases the cell can choose whether or not to absorb the hormone (kind of like RSVPing). We should also note that certain hormones compete for the same positions, you can’t be at two parties at once!
We also must understand that the endocrine system operates in feedback loops. Remember, the body wants to remain in balance or in homeostasis, so when an external stimulus occurs to the body, it must react. Feedback loops are pretty much just a response to this external stimulus. There are two types of feedback loops:
- Negative feedback loops = negative reaction
- Negative feedback loops are much more common in the body than positive feedback loops and we experience these all the time. When we walk into a cold room and begin to shiver, this is our body’s attempt to create heat to maintain our internal body temperature. Negative feedback loops consist of a negative response aiming to bring our body back to homeostasis.
- Positive feedback loops = positive reaction
- Positive feedback loops encourage the reaction and push the body away from homeostasis. While this can often be “bad,” as we saw before in the endless cycle of increased stress hormones, it’s also necessary for a number of biological reactions. For example, during childbirth as the infant pushes against the mother’s cervix it causes a release of oxytocin which causes the uterus to contract, pushing the baby out of the womb. The more the infant pushes against the cervix, the more oxytocin is released until the child exits the womb, ending the feedback loop.
Estrogen Production Pathway:
I must note that this is a vastly simplified explanation of how estrogen and our endocrine system functions. The endocrine system is one of the body’s most complex systems and it is still not fully understood today. As we continue to learn more about this system, I will hopefully be able to produce better, more accurate, and more comprehensive information about exactly how the system works, but for now, I will do my best.
*For a more in-depth explanation of the estrogen production pathway I highly recommend checking out my recent article on testosterone supplementation, as they are produced in a near-identical process.
Estrogen production begins in the brain within the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus releases a hormone known as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) which signals to the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH).
This hormone is eventually transported to the sex organs (testes or ovaries) at which point cholesterol is converted into pregnenolone and then into one of the steroid hormones (pictured below). Which hormones are produced will depend on a number of factors based on the current state of the body’s internal and external environment, or basically what your brain & cells decide they need at the time.
There are a few main points I would like to address here. First, all of these hormones compete with each other to be produced. There is a finite amount of cholesterol in the body, which inherently limits the amount of any/all of these hormones that can be produced.
The more testosterone that is produced, the less cholesterol is available to produce the other steroid hormones. Second, it’s important to remember that the body wants to remain in balance and if possible will produce the hormones necessary to do so. For example, if you have excess testosterone your body will prioritize producing more estrogen among the other hormones and vice versa.
Lastly, I want to address the “positive stress hormone feedback loop” that I briefly mentioned before. If your body enters into a state of chronic stress, it begins to run off of these stress hormones, resulting in an endless cycle of producing more and more of these stress hormones. You may also notice in the diagram above that testosterone can be converted into estrogen through a process known as the aromatization of testosterone. As estrogen levels increase, so will the amount of testosterone converted into estrogen.
*Side note* - Dihydrotestosterone or DHT is kind of like testosterone’s older brother. DHT is produced by converting testosterone into DHT. It is found in much lower quantities than testosterone, but it is much more potent, exhibiting a larger androgenic effect in the body. Unlike testosterone, DHT cannot be converted into estrogen. High levels of DHT are often found in men exhibiting symptoms of male pattern baldness, enlarged prostate issues, among a number of other health issues.
These high levels of DHT almost always coincide with excess levels of estrogen in the body. Knowing what we now know about the body and its feedback loops, would it not make sense for the body in its “stressed state” to convert large amounts of testosterone into DHT to prevent the testosterone from being converted into estrogen?
Note - To be completely honest this is one of the most difficult things I have had to write about thus far in my writing career. The story of estrogen is a story of progress and industrialization, but it’s also a story of corruption. I believe it is part of our responsibility as human beings to believe the best in people, that people can and will choose to do the right thing if they have the ability to do so.
And for this reason, I find this topic heart-breaking to write about, as I cannot even begin to fathom an explanation of this topic that does not entail outright corruption within the health & food industries. Some of this upcoming section may come across as shocking, or you may have heard it all before. The goal of this section is to provide you with insight, so you can form your own opinion on the subject, whether or not you agree with my perspective.
It seems as though the more we advance as a society, the more problems we develop. We needed a faster method of transportation than the horse and buggy so we invented the first automobile. These automobiles took too long to make and were therefore not able to be mass-produced, so Henry Ford invented the assembly line, revolutionizing the manufacturing industry.
As our population grows we need to produce more food to feed it, so we invent pesticides and herbicides to protect the crops from insects and weeds. Over time these innovations have resulted in the hyper-competitive market present in our society, a never-ending race for efficiency, convenience, and effectiveness. This has resulted in a ton of “progress” for us as a race, but sometimes this progress comes at a cost...
As we now understand, estrogen is not the pro-health hormone that we have been led to believe, and like anything else, in excess, it can wreak havoc on our body. You know that saying, ‘you are what you eat,’ well I’m going to take it one step further and say,
You Are What You Absorb
Remember that shape game that children play in which they are supposed to put the circular block into its respective hole, the square block in the square hole, etc? This resembles how our hormones work. Every hormone has a receptor that is designed to match its shape, just like the square block fits only in the square hole.
When a hormone finds its receptor it expresses its intended effect on that area or cell. The difference between estrogen and these other hormones is the abundance in which estrogen is found in our society today. While estrogen itself is not just floating around our air, hundreds of phytoestrogens or estrogen-mimicking molecules (compounds that closely resemble the shape of estrogen allowing it to occupy these estrogen receptor sites) have been created today and are found in just about everything. Here are a few to name:
- Atrazine - an herbicide prevalently used across the US to prevent the growth of weeds among crops
- Phthalates - a plastic additive that makes plastic soft and more malleable
- Parabens - often found in cosmetic products
- BPA & BPS - another plastic additive designed to make plastic softer
- EE2 - birth control!
- Red 3, 10, & 40 - a red food coloring agent found in processed foods and drinks
- Triclosan & alkylphenols - found in hand soaps among other cleaning products
- Benzophenones - found in sunblock
- Naturally occurring phytoestrogens - found naturally in plants and fungus, typically highly concentrated in plant seeds
All of these compounds are known to exhibit an estrogenic effect in our bodies to varying degrees. Most of these compounds are absorbed through our food, drinks, and skin into our bodies. While it is acknowledged that these compounds are estrogenic, it is still heavily debated whether estrogen is a pro-health hormone and therefore whether or not these chemicals are harmful or beneficial for us to consume.
If it’s not already concerning enough to see BPA grouped with these compounds, which is known to cause birth defects, cancer, and a string of other health issues, let me paint you a picture. Here is a list of some of the potential side effects from the birth control Aranelle, a type of estrogen:
Common Side Effects:
- breast tenderness
- swelling of the ankles/feet (fluid retention)
- weight change
- vaginal bleeding between periods (spotting)
- missed/irregular periods
- may raise your blood pressure
Serious side effects:
- lumps in the breast
- mental/mood changes (such as new/worsening depression)
- severe stomach/abdominal pain
- unusual changes in vaginal bleeding (such as continuous spotting, sudden heavy bleeding, missed periods)
- dark urine
- yellowing eyes/skin
Very rare side effects:
- blood clots (such as deep vein thrombosis, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, stroke)
- chest/jaw/left arm pain
- sudden dizziness/fainting
- pain/swelling/warmth in the groin/calf
- trouble speaking
- sudden shortness of breath/rapid breathing
- unusual headaches (including headaches with vision changes/lack of coordination, worsening of migraines, sudden/very severe headaches)
- unusual sweating
- weakness on one side of the body
- vision problems/changes (such as double vision, partial/complete blindness)
- allergic reaction
- including rash
- itching/swelling (especially of the face/tongue/throat)
- severe dizziness
This is not a complete list of possible side effects. If you notice other effects not listed above, contact your doctor or pharmacist.
Isn’t that kind of absurd? The sheer amount of potential side effects from taking a drug which allegedly improves the health of women and reduces the risk of cancer.
Now, obviously, if these side effects were very common in our society and happening all the time, we probably would have figured it out by now that estrogen is ‘no Bueno’ when it comes to our health.
Here’s the thing though, it’s not the small exposures to these estrogens that cause these health issues, it’s the repeated exposure that accumulates over time. As the amount of estrogenic compounds found in our society has increased, so have many of our health issues. Here are a few correlations to illustrate this:
- Obesity rates in America have increased by 10% every 10 years since 1980, currently standing around 42.4%
- Estrogen happens to be stored in fat cells and signals to the body to increase fat cell production
- Low Testosterone levels in men have become commonplace today
- We now understand that the more estrogen present in the body, the less testosterone is able to be produced
- Globally the occurrence of breast cancer has increased by 256% from 1980 to 2010
- And, my personal favorite, consuming red meat has been deemed to increase the risk of cancer.
- I mean, come on, this makes perfect sense. We feed our cows with corn that is coated in atrazine among other herbicides and pesticides, fatten them up as much as possible to maximize the weight of the cow (increasing their estrogen levels), and then throw them right on the butcher block, chock-full of these estrogenic compounds.
To reiterate, estrogen is not “bad.” I mean, why would our body evolve anything designed to purposely harm itself? It is only in excess that estrogen becomes harmful to our body.
The issue is that in today’s environment, estrogenic compounds are found in our food, water, and just about everything else, so it is nearly impossible to not consume excess amounts of estrogen unless you are consciously avoiding them.
It is also important to note that it is the accumulation of these estrogenic compounds over time that will lead to these health issues down the road. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen eventually. Now, I’m not telling you to go and purge your bathroom and kitchen cabinets from all these estrogenic products, but I’m advocating for you to be aware of what you are putting into your body.
For more information on the subject, I highly recommend reading Estrogeneration by Dr. Anthony G. Jay, on which I based the entirety of this section. In Estrogeneration, Dr. Jay goes into much more detail into estrogen and estrogenics, their effects on both humans, animals, and our environment.
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How To Lower Your Estrogen Levels
There is no need to lower your estrogen levels if you never had high estrogen levels in the first place.
How can I be proactive?
Buy and consume products that do not contain estrogen or estrogenic compounds. From shampoo to meat, buying natural and organically sourced products will make a huge difference in your long-term health.
Dr. Jay has a number of resources available on his website detailing the products he himself uses: https://www.ajconsultingcompany.com/whatiuse.html, but as long as the product does not contain any of the ingredients listed above it should be fine. Buying organic products will also ensure that pesticides/herbicides were not used in the farming process. Additionally, a solid water filtration system like the Berkey water filter will filter out any estrogenic compounds present in your water supply.
If you are already knee-deep in the estrogen puddle, here are a few ways you can go about decreasing your estrogen levels
- Lose excess body fat - Estrogen is primarily stored from within your fat cells, by decreasing the number of fat cells in your body you will lower the amount of estrogen available to be stored.
- Increase your testosterone/progesterone levels - We know that all of the steroid hormones compete with one another to be produced. By maximizing your body’s production of testosterone/progesterone we can minimize the amount of estrogen and other stress hormones that are produced. How can I do this?
- Consume a testosterone boosting supplement - Testosterone boosting supplements are (or should be) designed to supply your body with the nutrients it needs to produce testosterone, of which the average person does not consume enough of in their diet. Ironically (or not), testosterone boosting supplements will also work for women, in the same way, be it to a lesser degree, and will also likely boost their progesterone levels in the process.
- Resistance Training - Resistance training has been shown to effectively increase testosterone levels.
- Consume a methylator - Methylators are compounds that are able to donate a methyl group to a given molecule. Estrogen molecules are kind of “sticky” and are difficult to remove from the body unless they are methylated, which allows them to be processed much more easily through the body. Betaine and Choline are two types of methylators that will help to process and remove estrogen from the body and are readily available as dietary supplements.
- Reduce your stress levels - Stress is stress, be that mental, emotional, or physical it's all basically interpreted by your body in the same way. Sleep eight hours a night, find a job you enjoy doing, socialize, etc…
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across on estrogen and estrogenics.
I really hope you found this article both interesting and informational regarding your current views on estrogen and our hormonal/endocrine system. If you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism feel free to reach me on our Facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. And please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good